Racist handout, reaction roil Clark

Some staff, students say president's silence on flier a concern

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Several Clark College faculty members are troubled by what they see as a tepid response to a racist flier distributed illicitly on the main Vancouver campus last week.

Students and staff dismayed by the one-page “White and Proud!” handout, which includes a swastika and National Socialist Movement contacts, were given little moral support or clear direction on how to vent fears or frustration, veteran faculty members said.

President Bob Knight will address the issue at a regularly scheduled “campus dialogue” session 1 p.m. Monday, in the Gaiser Student Center.

“It’s a judgment call. I just don’t know how many students this really, really affected,” Knight said on Wednesday.

Monday’s talk comes 13 days after the episode. Early on Oct. 5, fliers were left in several classroom buildings and tacked on bulletin boards; one unidentified male handed them to students, reportedly stuffing fliers in backpack pockets of those who rebuffed him.

Critics say that’s not nearly swift enough at a college where minorities now make up one-quarter of nearly 16,000 students.

“Where’s the leadership, here?” said Marcia Roi, a counseling instructor and head of Clark’s faculty union. She cited similar incidents where school leaders responded forcefully.

“We really need to hear something,” said Debi Jenkins, early childhood development professor and psychology instructor, and member of Clark’s Cultural Pluralism Committee. “Bob Knight has done nothing. The message behind his silence is loud. It speaks volumes.”

‘Made emotions worse’

Knight’s office has yet to weigh in. Instead, an e-mail came in the early evening of Oct. 7 from human resources Vice President Darcy Rourk, to reaffirm Clark’s non-discrimination policies and to direct students to campus security should they feel threatened. Rourk has stepped in to handle duties of Leann Johnson, former director of equity and diversity who left Clark a few weeks ago.

The message went to a master campus list — one that many students aren’t linked into or often ignore during busy times, faculty leaders said. It also came only after dozens of Clark employees exhorted Knight to act.

To many, it fell far short.

“Three days (later) … in the evening. It made the emotions worse” that there wasn’t a swift response, said Felisciana Peralta, Clark’s multicultural retention manager. Several upset students were steered her way the day fliers surfaced.

“Isn’t it an issue of safety? Sure seems like it,” said Leah Rimington, 18, a second-year Running Start student. “People are very upset” by the fliers, she said.

Knight has been told of upset students, but none have come forward, he said: “Not one student’s been identified to me, who’s felt threatened.” It’s still unclear how many fliers were circulated, he said.

But, would it have hurt to fire off his own simple, clear message? Knight was asked.

“There are fliers that go up all the time that the president doesn’t agree with” that violate campus standards and are removed without his comment, he said.

“Is this worthy of getting the entire campus involved, or is it an incident that affects just one or two people? At this time, I don’t even know that,” he said.

“I just didn’t feel that it was warranted,” Knight said. He has supporters, but is aware of “vocal people who aren’t happy” he expects to see on Monday. “I can accept folks that criticize me. … I’m open to changing how we respond next time.”

Clark Student Body President Samson Ramirez and other student government leaders had met with Knight and other officials who weighed options. Rourk’s e-mail did follow, but Ramirez wished there were more effort to alert students how to seek resources as needed or to simply talk out the issue.

“The administration needs to get that information out immediately, so teachers can bring it up with students” if appropriate, he said. If not, the takeaway message can be, “‘Oh, obviously the college doesn’t know about it, or it doesn’t matter.’ It’s an issue that’s going to fall by the wayside,” he said.

‘Something to talk about’

Jenkins, who is black and a Clark instructor since 1992, said she’s sure past presidents never would have let such an incident skate by without letting students know their leader has their back.

“This is something to talk about. … You gotta give it to Wayne Branch, he would have been out there” making himself available to students, Jenkins said. “It’s too long. It’s too large a space to not say anything.”

Jenkins said she and some students felt directly threatened by the flier. “If he’s going to stuff it in a backpack, what next?” she said.

But neither Ramirez, who is Latino, nor other minority students questioned on Wednesday — coincidentally, when David Hilliard, former Black Panther chief of staff, spoke to an overflow crowd in Clark’s student center — sense any campus racial tension, they said.

“It’s a safe place. You see mixed friends walking around, relationships, too,” said first-year student Kyle Lam, 18, who is part Chinese and Vietnamese.

“It’s not a bad environment. I haven’t experienced that with anyone,” said Shannon Rhodes, 42, a medical billing student who is black. It’s a far cry from her former home of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, she said. “No problem, that I can see. If I had any, I’d report it.”

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.